Northampton’s preliminary election inching closer 

  • Northampton City Hall in June 2021

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2021 9:09:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With less than two weeks until the Sept. 28 preliminary election, candidates for mayor and City Council at-large are making their pitches to voters in virtual and in-person campaign stops throughout the city.

At a Tuesday mayoral candidate forum organized by Northampton Neighbors, a nonprofit that supports local seniors, moderator Kenneth Dym said that people over 55 make up 18% of the city’s population, but they are often “invisible, stigmatized and not included in discussions of diversity.” He asked each candidate how they would work to meet the needs of seniors as mayor.

Shanna Fishel, 42, a social worker and former public school teacher who uses they/them pronouns, said seniors are disproportionately affected by cost-of-living increases and residential tax hikes. They said that seniors should have more opportunities for “personal connection” in the city, which would ensure their “voices are heard when we make decisions that affect them the most.”

Better access to “affordable and timely” transportation is crucial for seniors in Northampton, Fishel said, and the city should use a planning practice called Universal Design that goes beyond the accessibility mandates of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Marc Warner, 62, founder of Warner Transportation Consulting and a regular member of local government committees, said “there is not a monolithic group of seniors,” and each person’s attitudes, experiences and needs are different. He praised the Senior Center and the Council on Aging as professional and hardworking organizations and suggested that they consider restoring a senior bus service that was shut down at the start of the pandemic.

He noted that the city offers personal tax exemptions and deferrals to help low-income seniors with their tax burdens, based on age and income. Deferred tax burdens accrue at an interest rate that is “still quite a bit higher than prime,” Warner said, “but it may be appropriate for the city … to consider a lower interest rate on the taxes that they would eventually collect when the person does move away or dies.”

Gina-Louise Sciarra, 47, the City Council president and communications manager at the nonprofit Pathlight, said the over-55 population in the city is growing, and while the city has made strides in accommodating the unique needs of seniors, more work is needed.

“Talk to anyone with mobility issues, and they will tell you that our sidewalks are incredibly hard to navigate, as is downtown, and we have a brilliant opportunity with our Main Street redesign to address some of these issues,” Sciarra said. She said the city should become a Dementia Friendly Community, a designation that would require municipal support efforts for people with memory difficulties.

Martin, 78, a retired Marine Corps veteran making his 10th run for mayor, said “the majority” of seniors on the campaign trail are against Proposition 2½ overrides, votes that allow the city to increase property taxes by more than 2.5% to fund projects such as new school buildings.

“Prop 2½ has been running people out of town,” Martin said, pledging to do “everything in my power” to avoid the overrides as mayor. “There’s no need of it. We have to live within our budget, and the seniors are the ones that are being hurt the most. … They can’t come up with extra money.”

Sciarra recently picked up the endorsement of Mary Ford, the first female mayor of Northampton. In 1991, Ford defeated Martin in his first run for the city’s top job.

Although four candidates are running for mayor, a fifth will appear on the Sept. 28 preliminary election ballot. Rosechana Gordon dropped out of the race in August, after the ballots were sent for printing. Voters will narrow down the field of candidates to two for the Nov. 2 general election.

‘Not living in a bubble’

Also on Sept. 28, voters will narrow the field of candidates for at-large City Council seats from five to four. In ballot order, the candidates for two at-large seats are Michael Quinlan, David Murphy, Marissa Elkins, Jamila Gore and Michelle Serra.

Serra, a longtime political organizer and 27-year resident of Florence, met with voters on Sept. 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts on Hawley Street. She detailed her past work as the Massachusetts chapter leader for Progressive Democrats for America and a board member for Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, among other political and public service positions.

“I believe that health care is a human right, and in adequately funding our new Department of Community Care,” Serra said, endorsing a bigger budget for the emergency response alternative that received $424,000 in fiscal 2022.

Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore was the only councilor to vote “no” on the fiscal 2022 budget, citing the department’s allocation, which would fund two jobs and a few minor expenses and studies.

Maiore attended Serra’s campaign event and fielded a question from the audience about the ongoing housing crisis. She said that, if a municipal budget does not include funding for shelters and housing resources, like-minded councilors can demand changes together.

“We really need a bloc of progressives on the council, frankly. That’s what I want,” Maiore said. “I’m sure Michelle would be open to that.”

While Serra is proud of her progressive credentials, she said she is a respectful listener when facing disagreement.

“I’m not living in a bubble,” Serra said. “My campaign has support from moderate voters who know me to be fair and reasonable.”

Coming candidate forums

Neighborhood groups in Wards 3 and 7 are co-hosting two in-person candidate events in the coming days, and they are both open to the public.

On Sunday, Sept. 19, the four mayoral candidates are scheduled to participate in a meet-and-greet at Lampron Park from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. The park is next to Bridge Street School, and the event will move under the outdoor school tents in case of rain.

The five City Councilor at-large candidates are planning to attend a meet-and-greet on Sunday, Sept. 26, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Leeds Elementary School.

“Both events are expected to be highly attended and are the only in-person events before the Sept. 28 preliminary election,” Ward 3 Neighborhood Association President Greg Kerstetter said in a statement. 

The organization Climate Action Now is hosting virtual forums for candidates in each race next week. The at-large councilors forum is Tuesday, Sept. 21, and the mayoral forum is on Thursday, Sept. 23, both at 7 p.m.

Pre-registration is required to attend the Climate Action Now forums. The pre-registration link, and the link for the Zoom forum, are on the organization’s Facebook page.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.



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